29 August 2009

East Timor: Solidarity Activists Press for Justice

IPS August 28, 2009 East Timor: Solidarity Activists Press for Justice Matt Crook - DILI (IPS) - After three years behind bars as a political prisoner in Indonesia, British human rights campaigner Carmel Budiardjo saw firsthand the viciousness of former President Suharto's military dictatorship. Expelled from the country in 1971, Budiardjo knew there would be suffering when the Indonesian military invaded East Timor in 1975.

In this capital for an international solidarity conference being held Aug. 27-29, Budiardjo told IPS that justice must be served for crimes committed during the Indonesian military's savage 24-year occupation that cost up to 200,000 East Timorese lives.

"Justice is really a question of accountability," said Budiardjo, who founded TAPOL (which means 'political prisoner' in Indonesian), or the Indonesian Human Rights Campaign, in 1973 with a group of activists in London to campaign for the release of political prisoners in Indonesia.

"When my organization began to campaign very hard about East Timor, this became (our focus) along with the political prisoners, to alert people about the situation," she added.

Budiardjo's late husband, an Indonesian, spent 12 years in prison without trial. At 84, Budiardjo's hearing may have diminished over time, but she is still as sharp as a tack.

"I was very acutely aware of the capacity of the military for brutality," she said.

On Aug. 30, 1999, the people of East Timor voted almost 80 percent in favour of independence, but rather than leaving quietly, the Indonesian military left its mark by destroying much of the nation's infrastructure and killing about 1,400 people.

After a transitional period overseen by the United Nations (UN), East Timor became independent on May 20, 2002.

Last year, East Timor relied on Indonesia for 42 percent of all its imports. The close ties between the two nations have been getting in the way of justice.

"If you want to make people accountable, they will certainly be Indonesians, the Indonesian military, (but) there are some people in the East Timorese government who don't want to upset the Indonesians," she said. "The grassroots people don't agree with that."

"One of the important things is to make sure the Indonesian people know what happened in East Timor. We from outside can make complaints about the Indonesian government, but it's much more important if the Indonesian people, civil society in Indonesia, understand what happened," she added.

American John M Miller, national coordinator of the East Timor and Indonesia Action Network, a non-profit organisation promoting human rights, also made the trip to Dili to join solidarity activists from 17 countries.

"In many ways, the campaign for justice has proven more difficult than the campaign for self-determination and independence," he said. "To succeed in that, we again need to have that partnership between the people of East Timor and the international solidarity movement."

There has been little in the way of justice for the people of East Timor. Most of those responsible for human rights violations during the Indonesian military's occupation have got off scot-free, despite the UN's Serious Crimes Unit indicting 391 people.

The unit investigated the crimes committed in the wake of violence that marred East Timor's 1999 independence vote.

Eighty-seven of those people were brought to trial in East Timor, resulting in 84 convictions, although only one remains in prison after President Jose Ramos-Horta used his presidential power to cut many of the sentences and grant clemency.

National Union Party leader Fernanda Borges, whose push for an international tribunal is opposed by Ramos-Horta, thinks enough is enough.

"These are international crimes that we should prosecute due to our international obligations and our need to end impunity in this country," she said in a recent speech.

Amnesty International has weighed in on the debate with a report titled, "We Cry for Justice: Impunity Persists 10 Years on in Timor-Leste," calling for the UN to set up an international tribunal.

According to the report, released Thursday, people in East Timor told the human rights group that the government's favouring of reconciliation over justice was "very difficult to comprehend and demoralizing for victims".

The Indonesian government immediately hit back, saying it will not prosecute alleged perpetrators of human rights abuses in East Timor, the Jakarta Post English daily reported.

On Apr. 17, victims and families gathered at late independence leader Manuel Carrascalao's house, where 10 years earlier, an Indonesian militia group murdered 12 people. Some 150 individuals had sought refuge at the house after fleeing violence in East Timor's districts.

This year, those victims and families called for an international tribunal, as well as for perpetrators of crimes against humanity to be held accountable for what they did.

These concerns and more are the hot topics at this week's solidarity conference.

East Timorese solidarity activist Lita Sarmento said, "We see that it is relevant to conduct this conference because 10 years after the referendum, we recognize that there are issues we need to take forward after independence as part of the unfinished struggle of the solidarity movement of the past."

Speaking on the opening panel of the solidarity conference, Irishman Tom Hyland, an East Timor activist, closed his speech by saying, "We have a saying in Ireland: justice delayed is justice denied." (END)

Advocating for an international criminal tribunal for crimes against humanity in Timor-Leste.

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